An incredibly seasoned foster mother with fifteen years of experience, Melissa Norwood was at a crossroads with how to help her adopted son Landon. A six-year-old with an extremely rough start in life, Landon had been exhibiting anger and impulse control issues. “Coming from the domestic violence background, it was understandable,” explains Melissa. But in a household with his mildly autistic older brother and three other foster children, Landon’s physical and emotional outbreaks were painful for the entire family. Also, the Norwoods own a few horses and Landon was adamantly against the idea of riding and exhibiting an escalating fear of horses. Knowing Wild Souls Ranch through the local Foster Parent Association, the Norwoods decided to send Landon to the Wild Souls Ranch kids camp with the simple goal of getting on a horse.
At camp, the kids participate in various activities including an art therapy session where each child is asked to draw something. “Landon drew a picture of a house, but when he was taken [by CPS], he and his brother were living in a motel.” Landon’s house wasn’t any house, but a spot-on rendition of the visitation center where he and his brother were allowed to see their father. Landon also drew a car in his picture and told the Wild Souls Ranch social workers that it was his dad’s car and called the picture, “Dad’s House.” In reality, Landon’s father never drove and only had a bicycle for transportation. Today, both of Landon’s parents have “stepped out of the picture completely,” Melissa says carefully.
The art therapy session sounds so simple, yet it proved to be a profound and transformative process for Landon. Melissa reports that in the last month since attending the Wild Souls Ranch camp, “He’s deescalated almost over 100%.” After the activity, Melissa and her wife, Nickie, took the drawing to Landon’s therapist and said, “There’s meaning to this, but help us figure it out!” The therapist told her that clearly Landon had a story to tell – getting to the root of it would help them understand where Landon’s anger and impulse control was coming from. “Subconsciously, he’s been processing everything that’s going on,” says Melissa. “Clearly, the Wild Souls team unlocked that box.”
Wild Souls Ranch executive director, Savanah McCarty, explains there’s a perception that their days are spent playing with ponies. Melissa and Landon’s story – about early childhood trauma, a drawing, and having a story to tell – paints a far different picture. “That staff brought something out of him,” says Melissa. “Whatever happened in that session, it unlocked something for Landon.” Today, Landon’s therapist has redirected his treatment to focus on his “origin story,” a social work term that essentially means trying to understand where – and who – you come from. Melissa and Nickie are now supporting Landon as he tried to unpack his personal origin story. As a child who was filed into the system around age 2 – and acted as the caretaker for his older brother – Landon never had the psychological or emotional ability to process what happened. As his Melissa explains, it’s pretty understandable that Landon is angry about the loss of his biological parents.
“My expectation was to for him to want to get on a horse. Because we have horses,” says Melissa. “Now we have a kid who is trying to be safe and not hurt people. Whatever Savanah did, it obviously hit a cord.”
Living in Humboldt County, the Norwoods know Wild Souls Ranch and their mission well. “The work that’s getting done there with these kids… there are not words for it,” says Melissa. “It’s priceless.” While she’s overcome with how therapeutic the ranch has been for Landon, Melissa is also 100% behind Wild Souls efforts to expand their services. “We have this pot of gold and we need to use it.”
And Landon? He’s all about horses now.
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